Thursday, September 18, 2008

Baptists and Religious Liberty

[Note: Last night (Wednesday, September 17, 2008) I spoke at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd here in Augusta on Religious Liberty; it was part of a series of guest talks on Christians and Politics. Part of what I said was adapted from a presentation I made in 2006 at Augusta State University at a forum on Church and State issues. What follows is the first part of my presentation. I think that all Baptists need to be reminded of our heritage of emphasizing religious liberty; I hope that folks of other traditions will be interested to learn about it.]

What you see depends largely on where you stand. Therefore, it is important that I confess right up front that I speak to this matter as a Baptist. Now, Baptists are a very diverse group. When I say that I come to this issue as a Baptist what I mean is that I am operating within what I understand the historic Baptist ways of thinking on church and state to be. I do think that my traditional Baptist way of viewing religious freedom is very compatible with the American tradition of religious freedom, but I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Historical background

Baptists emerged in England during the early years of the Protestant Reformation. The Church of England had separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534. Soon, a movement developed within some members of the Church of England to “purify” the church, which primarily meant to “purify” it of lingering Catholic elements. Thus the Puritans emerged. Some of those Puritans sought to purify the church from within. Others believed the only course was to “separate” from the Church of England; thus developed the Separatists. Some of the Separatists arrived at the conclusion that only those who had accepted Christ for themselves should be baptized; they thus rejected infant baptism and adopted the concept of believer’s baptism. They thus became known as Baptists. The first Baptist church of record was founded in 1609 in Holland by English Separatists who had fled there to escape persecution in England. The first Baptist church on English soil was founded in 1612 by Thomas Helwys near London.

The historic Baptist position on church and state must be seen in the light of those Baptist beginnings. Baptists were a persecuted minority—persecuted by the Church of England--in their early years. They were compelled by their convictions to dissent from the established church. Therefore, they advocated for religious liberty. Obviously, there was self-interest involved here; they wanted religious liberty for themselves. But they also advocated for religious liberty for everyone.

While Thomas Helwys, the founder of that first Baptist church on English soil, was exiled in Holland, he wrote a treatise that was addressed to King James I and that was entitled A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity. He published it in 1612. He was arrested and placed in Newgate Prison in London in that same year. That very important writing “contained the first exposition in English of the notion of liberty of conscience” [Richard Groves, ed., A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1611/1612) by Thomas Helwys (Macon: Mercer University, 1998), p. xx]. Here is the most influential passage from that book; it is foundational for the Baptist perspective on the relationship between church and state.

(O)ur lord the king is but an earthly king, and he has no authority as a king but in earthly causes. And if the king’s people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all human laws made by the king, our lord the king can require no more. For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Neither may the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure. (p. 53)

So from their very beginnings in England, Baptists advocated for religious liberty for all.

That advocacy carried over to the New World. Here I mention the name of Roger Williams. While he was a Baptist for only a few months, Williams is credited with founding, along with a several other people, the first Baptist church on American soil in Providence in 1639. While he was back in England seeking a charter for the Providence colony, he published The Bloody Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience (1644) which included this among its propositions:

(I)t is the will and command of God that, since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-Christian consciences and worships be granted to all men in all nations and countries, and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only, in soul matters, able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God’s Spirit, the word of God.

Much of the drive toward enshrining religious liberty in the Constitution came from Virginia, where my Baptist forebears were again persecuted, now by the Anglican establishment. In the late eighteenth century, the Virginia Baptist minister John Leland had the ear of James Madison. The United States Constitution had no provisions prohibiting the establishment of religion or guaranteeing the free exercise of religion. The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights guaranteed the free exercise of religion and prohibited the establishment of religion.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Historians give Leland and other Baptists (and some Presbyterians and Quakers, too) credit for having a lot of influence on the content and inclusion of that First Amendment. Moreover, the famous phrase “wall of separation between church and state” comes from a Baptist context. While it was used earlier, it is most famously found in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury, CT Baptist Association in 1802.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and state.

True religious liberty necessitates the separation of church and state; that is underscored in the “no law respecting an establishment of religion” clause. True religious liberty is liberty for everyone to worship as they please or not to worship if they please; that is underscored in the “no law…prohibiting the free exercise thereof” clause. Thus are the ideals of my Baptist tradition enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

Theological Background

Baptists have theological reasons for our traditional insistence on religious liberty and the separation of church and state. [I draw the three categories and the quotations from Walter B. Shurden, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 1993), p. 49.]

First, it is based on the nature of God. The Bible teaches that God in his sovereign freedom also made people free and that God treasures and works for freedom. As Walter Shurden has said, “Freedom is more than a constitutional right or a governmental gift. God, not nations or courts or human law, is the ultimate source of liberty.”

Second, it is based on the nature of humanity. To quote Shurden again, “Created in the image of God, a human being is the crowning work of God’s creation. Human personality is sacred and life’s highest value. To deny freedom of conscience to any person is to debase God’s creation.”

Third, it is based on the nature of faith. Baptists have historically believed that every person is competent to relate to God for herself or himself. To be genuine, faith must be free and voluntary. (That is why Baptists insist on believer’s baptism; a person must make his or her own decision for or against Christ. Whether or not a Christian tradition insists on believer’s baptism, though, the vast majority of Christians would affirm the idea that real faith must be free and voluntary.) To our way of thinking, only freely chosen faith that leads to life-changing and heart-felt discipleship is real faith. State-sponsored or endorsed religion tends toward explicit or implicit coercion and coercion of any sort stands in the way of such legitimate faith.

My tradition is evangelical; we believe that God through Christ reaches out to people in grace and love and that he desires that they reach back to him in faith and love. God does not coerce. Jesus did not coerce. I stand opposed to governmental coercion in religion because it leads at best to civil religion and at worst to the practice of hypocrisy, which has nothing to do with legitimate faith. As Thomas Helwys put it,

“It is spiritual obedience that the Lord requires, and the king’s sword cannot smite the spirits of men. And if our lord the king shall force and compel men to worship and eat the Lord’s Supper against their consciences, so shall he make his poor subjects to worship and eat unworthily, whereby he shall compel them to sin against God, and increase their own judgements.” (Helwys, Mystery, p. 37)

When the government mandates or dictates religious practices, then people might be coerced into violating their conscience. What has such to do with the kind of authentic faith that evangelical Christians champion and insist is necessary?


My opinion, in which I draw on the historical and theological legacy of my Baptist forebears, is that the wall of separation between church and state has served us well and should be kept high and strong. Historically, Baptists have advocated for religious liberty for all. Simply put, unless everyone is free, no one is free; unless everyone is free to exercise his or her faith or no faith at all, there is no religious liberty. Theologically, we have advocated for a faith that is between a person and God, that is freely and voluntarily chosen. Personally, my main concern is for the vitality and integrity of religious expression. That is why I strongly oppose practices that tend toward a governmental sanctioning of religion.

Besides, churches and temples and mosques are everywhere in this country. People of all kinds of faiths are everywhere. Religious expression flourishes in our nation and I believe one of the reasons is our tradition of keeping church and state from getting entangled with each other.

The ideal is a free church in a free state.

1 comment:

Gary Snowden said...


That was an outstanding summary of Baptists' contribution to the issue of separation of church and state as well as the theological basis for maintaining these principles. As one who used to teach Baptist history regularly, I'd say you have learned Baptist heritage well.